By Aidan Doyle
The dogs’ barking let me know I had visitors. I reluctantly left my chair by the fire, pulled on my boots, and took my thundergun from its place on the wall. I rarely had any visitors apart from Magnus, which was how the dogs and I liked it.
When I opened the cabin door, the sun’s brightness made me squint. The sky was bluer than a husky’s eyes. Most folks enjoyed summer’s months of continual sunlight, but I preferred the peace of winter’s darkness. Nobody but a lover expects things of you when it’s dark.
I walked across the crisp snow, my breath appearing as a mist in front of me. A ten-dog team pulling a sled with two people in it drew to a halt outside my cabin. The two figures stepped off the sled, one of them crouching down to check the dogs and the other striding towards me. I recognized Kristin’s loping gait before I could make out her face. She always looked as though she was in a hurry to reach tomorrow. It had been years since I’d seen my sisters.
Kristin wore a heavy coat with wanted posters stitched onto it. All of the villains had their faces crossed out. A pair of silver thunderguns rested in holsters by her side.
“It’s a fine day for sledding,” Kristin said. Her tone suggested that only the most inglorious of cowards would disagree.
“Fine day for staying warm,” I replied.
Kristin glanced up at the sun. “Three months of sunlight. Ain’t no place for secrets to hide.”
Inga had tied the dogs to the sledding post. She was ten years younger than me and two years older than Kristin. The two of them had always been inseparable. “We need to talk,” she said.
My own dogs were still barking, so I said a few words to let them know that while the visitors weren’t exactly welcome, they were at least family.
My sisters stamped their boots and brushed the snow from their clothes before stepping into my cabin. I saw them register the fire burning during summer, a luxury I couldn’t really afford, but neither of them said anything. We all owe ourselves the occasional treat.
“Drink?” I asked, and they nodded. I reached for the good bottle. Family is family after all. I poured them each a glass of Dr. Iceheart’s Whiskey.
“How ya doin’, Elin?” Kristin asked.
I shrugged. “Getting by.”
“Ain’t nothing more dangerous than an ability to get by,” Kristin replied. “If you’re not careful that’s all you’ll ever do.” She took a sip of whiskey in preparation for what I expected would be a summer-long speech, but Inga raised a hand and Kristin fell silent.
“Mama’s gone,” Inga said.
It felt like I’d stepped onto thin ice. I was still standing, but I could hear the cracks beneath me.
“She went into Cold Man’s Dream two months ago. She didn’t come out,” Inga continued.
I poured myself another glass and sat down. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. We’d all known Mama’s recklessness would catch up with her one day. That didn’t make it any easier.
“We aim to give her the proper rites,” Inga said.
“How can you be sure she’s dead?”
Inga held out a ring of polished dreamstone. “Mama gave this to me before she left. It turned dark two months ago.”
“We need you to come with us,” Kristin said.
“You don’t need me.” With the news of Mama’s death, leaving my chair seemed like an impossible journey, let alone the epic travail across snow and ice to the land’s deepest dreamstone mine.
“We need a witness to choose which one of us deserves her guns,” Kristin said.
I should have guessed. It was all about the guns. Two guns and two sisters who wanted to be a warden. Warden guns only worked as a pair.
“I don’t want the guns,” I announced.
Kristin shifted uncomfortably. “No, we want you to be the witness. You should choose whether Inga or I carry on Mama’s legacy.”
“I’m the oldest sister. What makes you think I don’t deserve Mama’s guns?” I didn’t want to become a warden, but that was no reason for my sisters to disrespect me.
“You suffer from a dangerous lack of ambition,” Kristin replied.
“Find another witness,” I told her.
“You’re family,” Kristin said. “We need you to choose.”
I shrugged. “Someone else can do that.”
“Family,” Inga said.
“Family,” Kristin said. “You were always there for us when we were growing up.” When Mama wasn’t, she didn’t need to add.
“We need you,” Inga said.
I sighed. “If Mama didn’t make it out of Cold Man’s Dream, what makes you think you will?”
“We’re taking the troll train,” Kristin said.
I’d always wanted to ride the troll train. Sitting in relative comfort seemed like the perfect way to explore the world. I looked at the photo of Mama on the wall. She was wearing the badge and guns of a Warden of Light and Dark. When I was ten, and she was pregnant with Inga, I worried Mama was going to abandon when she had another child. Mama promised she’d never leave me. Yet four years later she told us she’d brought peace to our settlement and needed to travel further to spread justice. She gave me a thundergun to protect myself, but her most precious gift was a belt buckle made in the shape of a dog’s face and containing a fragment of Light and Dark. Then she left us in the care of our father.
“Give me a day to make my preparations,” I said. “The dogs will need looking after.”
My cabin contained books, whiskey, and an open fireplace. It was world enough for me, but every time I was on a sled, I was reminded of how much I loved the feel of rushing across the snow, the wind caressing my face, the expressions of absolute joy on the dogs as they raced.
My neighbor had promised to look after my dogs while I was away, but I didn’t like spending time away from them. My sisters’ dogs took us to the town closest to the troll station entrance and then they sold the dogs. It’s hard to trust people who would sell a dog.
Before she left, Mama told me to take good care of my sisters and the dogs. “Dogs are fiercely loyal, Elin. Some folks take advantage of that and treat them badly. Sometimes I forget and take them for granted, but they always have a special place in my heart.”
The ten feet high station entrance was carved into the side of a glacier overlooking the town. A troll with gray stone skin waited inside, standing out of the sunlight. “State your business,” he said in a rumbling voice.
I’d seen trolls before, but never up this close. A thundergun would have little effect on a troll, and it would have taken little effort for the troll’s mighty fists to turn us into a thin paste. I didn’t know what a fragment of Light and Dark would do, but I couldn’t help reaching down to place a reassuring hand on my belt buckle.
“We’re the daughters of Sara Birtasdottir,” Inga said.
“Follow me,” the troll replied. He turned and marched into the tunnel.
I couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief. “How does he know Mama?”
“Mama foiled a train robbery,” Kristin answered. “Her family are allowed to ride the trains.”
There was so much I didn’t know about Mama. She was the least nostalgic person I’d ever met. From her point of view, the past was gone and unchangeable. What was the point of blathering on about it?
The troll led us along a winding tunnel until we reached an ice cave littered with gleaming machinery. A red rock troll covered in scratches stood behind a workbench.
“This is Grindel Sharpstone,” Inga said. “This is my sister Elin.”
The troll dumped his tools on the bench and raised a hand in greeting. He stood well over eight feet tall and had ruby red eyes. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I haven’t finished testing the necklaces.”
“We need a new warden,” Kristin said. “We need the guns.”
“There are ways to serve Light and Dark without wielding guns,” Grindel said.
“The train will be here soon,” Inga said.
“Give me a moment,” Grindel replied. He packed away his tools and we followed him through a tunnel to a platform carved from impossibly blue ice and illuminated by a line of phosphorescent mushrooms. Beyond the platform, lay a fifteen-foot high tunnel with parallel steel tracks laid on the ground.
Two trolls carrying sacks over their shoulders waited on the platform, but they ignored us. While we waited for the train to arrive, Grindel and my sisters conducted a negotiation that resulted in Inga handing over a bag of suncatching stones and Grindel giving us each a necklace made of pieces of polished dreamstone.
“This will reduce the effect of being exposed to large amounts of raw dreamstone,” Grindel pronounced.
“Reduce or stop?” I asked.
Kristin shrugged. “That’s as good as we’re going to get.”
The deeper the mine, the more dangerous the dreamstone. Prospectors risked their lives in the hope of making a big claim, but Mama had never been a prospector. Why had she gone into Cold Man’s Dream?
About an hour later, the ground shook and a sound like a million shards of ice calving off a glacier echoed down the tunnel. A beam of light lit up the walls and the train arrived in a rush of air. It consisted of an engine and six carriages made from red steel with dreamstone wheels. Light poured from a giant mushroom attached to the front of the engine car, and dark puffs of burned dreams spilled from the engine’s chimney.
“This is our temple to Light and Dark,” Grindel said.
“Only way to travel,” Kristin said.
Grindel opened the closest carriage door and we stepped inside. The carriage contained rows of uncomfortable-looking bench seats. All of the other passengers were trolls and pretended to ignore us.
A horn sounded and the train pulled away from the station. I knew the train could travel ten times faster than a sled of dogs, but it felt like we were barely moving. I had expected the walls to shake, but the floor was still enough to balance a glass of whiskey.
“Why are you coming with us?” I asked Grindel.
“The sun won’t set for another three months. I can’t go outside, but I take every opportunity to ride the train. If I wasn’t bound by the Light, there is nowhere I wouldn’t go. I’ll ride the train to the Coldwood station and back again.”
Inga leaned back against the wall and promptly fell asleep.
“I’ll show you the engine,” Grindel said.
“Is it safe to leave Inga?”
“A troll train is the safest place you can be,” Grindel said. He spoke to the conductor and we were allowed into the engine car. Waves of heat rolled off the furnace, where a granite-colored troll tossed lumps of dreamstone into the flames. Some folks believe that dreamstone is made from the dreams of the first trolls.
As if sensing my thoughts, Grindel fixed his gaze on me. “Dreams are only useful if they take you places.”
“But what if you’ve already reached your destination? You have to stop at some point.”
“Maybe you should have been born a troll,” Grindel said.
“Don’t seem like such a bad life to me.”
“There is both Light and Dark in everything,” he replied. He wished me luck in the mines and went to talk to the driver.
Kristin and I walked back to Inga’s carriage. She was still asleep.
“Where are we getting off?” I asked.
“The station near Coldwood. The settlement is a day’s journey from the mine.” Kristin leaned in close. “When we were growing up, folks used to say I talked enough for the three of us. You and Inga like to keep your thoughts buried deep. Everyone knows Inga would make a good warden. She’s got a sharp heart and a sharp mind and spreads justice like a white bird shits. Some folks think that words count for little compared to action, but the truth is that sometimes you need someone who knows how to talk and not shoot. If you choose me to inherit the guns, I’ll speak justice in the streets like nobody ever heard before.”
“I’ll think about it,” I replied, which was the last thing I wanted to do.
She squeezed my shoulder. “That’s all I’m asking, sis.”
Coldwood was the kind of place that reminded me why I preferred not to leave my cabin. A lawless dive with a saloon, kennels, and a prospectors’ equipment store.
“Coldwood is dangerous, so be careful,” Kristin told me.
The saloon’s battered sign read: Cold & Thirsty. It was not the kind of establishment where people made the effort of brushing the snow from their boots. A table of gamblers spared us a momentary glance before returning to their cards. The fog of whiskey fumes hanging over the table was so thick I could smell it across the room. A man in sealskin boots stood by the fire, a glass of green liquid clutched in his hands. His gaze strayed to the silver thunderguns at my sisters’ sides, before he turned his attention back to the fire.
The bartender was a bear of a man in a stained sweater. “Welcome to C&Ts. I’m C. And that is T.” He pointed to a troll dozing in the corner of the room. “Don’t get on T’s bad side.” He poured us some whiskeys. “Where you folks heading?”
“Cold Man’s Dream,” Kristin answered.
The bartender gave a low whistle. “Chasing the big dream. Good for you. Have to warn you that it’s mighty risky. The upper levels were cleaned out long ago. Folks who go looking in the lower levels don’t tend to come back.”
“We’re looking for a warden,” Kristin said. “Older woman with gray hair. Went by the name of Sara Birtasdottir.”
The bartender nodded. “Sure, I remember her.” He looked at each of us in turn. “I can see the resemblance. She was here a couple of months back. The kind of person who could fill a room without saying a word. Didn’t seem like your average prospector.”
The bartender didn’t have anything else useful to tell us about Mama, but he gave us directions to the mine. Inga finished her drink and went to the kennels to buy some dogs. I offered to go too, as I know my dogs, but Kristin wanted to talk to me.
Kristin ordered another drink and we sat at a table in the corner. “You’re wasting your talents sitting in that cabin,” she told me. “I know you ain’t no sharpshooter, but you’ve got a glacier-cold head in a crisis, Elin. A good judge makes a warden’s job much easier. You should have taken that job they offered you in Icebreak.”
I was surprised she’d heard about that. Icebreak had its charms, but I didn’t want to be a judge.
“Folks respect the decisions you make, Elin. The world deserves to see more of you.”
I stood up from the table. “I gotta take a piss,” I announced. “Where’s your outhouse?” I asked the bartender.
He pointed to a door on the other side of the room. “Out the back. Follow the trail”
I sighed. Trail? How did they survive in winter? But I preferred visiting a frozen shitter to listening to my youngest sister tell me what to do with my life.
I stomped outside and made my way to the fouler-than-I-could-have-dreamed outhouse.
After a moment of quiet repose, I did my business and headed back to the saloon.
The man in the sealskin boots was waiting on the trail, a gun pointed at my head. “I can always spot the weakest members of the herd,” he pronounced. “I’ll give you a piece of free advice. If you don’t want to look helpless, you shouldn’t stare at the ground all the time. There are better places to look than at a man’s boots.”
In the case of the man in the sealskin boots that was evidently untrue. “I’m used to looking at the ground because I’m watching for hidden crevasses.”
“I bet you’ve never even fired that fancy polished gun hanging by your side.”
That was true but it wasn’t going to save his life. “Are you going to try to rob me or are you going to stand there all day bleating like a snow sheep?”
“You got quite the lip on you for someone with a gun pointed at their head.”
“My mama gave me this gun.”
He had a dry, hacking laugh. “That’s mighty sweet. Almost a shame to deprive you of that pretty ornament. But papa needs his drinking money.”
“If you leave now, I won’t hurt you.” Maybe I was telling the truth.
He scowled. “There’ll be a hole in your head before your hand gets halfway to your gun.”
He was only looking at my thundergun, but Mama’s belt buckle was a resting place for a fragment of Light and Dark. A shadow and beam. I willed the Light and Shadow to leave the buckle. A ball of shadow and fire rushed out and incinerated the man so that nothing remained except his sealskin boots.
Even without my help, Inga got us a fine set of dogs. It was a tough ride, but we reached Cold Man’s Dream in less than a day.
Folks are always seeing shapes in rocks. White Bird Rock. Ice Bear Boulder. Three Dog Peak. But most of the time they look like gray and ugly rocks. The side of this mountain did look uncannily like a man’s face. A gray and ugly man. The mine entrance was a tunnel cut into his eye and marked by tattered claim flags.
“What happens to the dogs if we don’t come out?”
“I told the kennel owner he could have the dogs if we weren’t back in four days,” Inga said. “The dogs were expensive enough that he’ll make the trip.”
The legends said the mine was so deep that the dreamstone in the lower levels had formed in the time before the trolls and held the dreams of Light and Dark themself. I reached up to reassure myself the troll’s necklace was still around my neck.
“Time to pay our respects to Mama,” Kristin announced.
I attached a set of walking spikes to my new sealskin boots and we entered the mine. My sisters hadn’t asked me where I’d got the boots, but they weren’t stupid. I hadn’t had any trouble sleeping the night after I killed that man. Sometimes it was hard to tell how much of my numbness was due to the cold. My belt buckle was gone, and I only had a thundergun to protect myself. I was a terrible shot.
The tunnel floor was coated in ice and without my spikes I would have slid everywhere. The roof looked like a great frozen wave of a million blue jewels about to crash down on us. We trekked through the tunnel until we reached a crevasse wide enough that even a troll would have hesitated to make the leap. An iron spike with a frayed rope attached to it was set into the side of the wall, but the rope came loose when Kristin pulled on it
Kristin took a rope from her backpack. Inga and I stood in silence while we waited for Kristin to lasso the spike.
“No speeches to win me over?”
Inga hesitated before answering. “You know me better than anyone in this cold land. Even Kristin. Sometimes it feels as though my mouth is full of fire, and I’ll burn the world if I say too much.” She reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “You know the choice to make.”
Mama used to say that knowing the right decision was one thing, having the strength to make it was something else.
Kristin secured the rope and swung across the crevasse to the other side. She pushed the rope and it swung back to us. I went across next and Inga followed me.
We kept going deeper until we reached the lower levels where veins of dreamstone lined the walls. Specks of turquoise light drifted out from the wall and floated around us until it felt like we were walking through the winter lights.
“They’re so beautiful,” Kristin whispered.
Inga pushed her ahead. “Ignore them. They’re cold dreams.”
The lights swirled around me, transforming into a translucent vision of Mama. The spectral figure looked just as I remembered Mama, even down to the details of her fleece jacket, shiny belt, and gleaming guns.
The image tipped its hat. “Howdy Elin.”
Kristin and Inga marched on ahead as though they hadn’t seen or heard anything.
“Howdy Mama,” I whispered. “Are you a dream?”
She smiled. “Always was, sweetie.”
“Why did you leave me, Mama?”
Inga turned to look back at me. “Don’t fall behind,” she warned.
I quickened my pace. Mama’s dream floated alongside me.
“I’m a dream, sweetie. I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know.”
“Who do you want to have your guns, Mama?”
“When I was a girl, I asked my mother what it meant to be a hero. She never could give me an answer I liked,” Mama said. I could remember her telling me that story. “The more I traveled, the more I became obsessed with the idea of a hero being someone who makes a decision so great that they don’t have to make any more real decisions. But that’s a foolish dream. There’s no final showdown to solve all your problems. There’s no white noon. You have to keep making decisions. Sometimes it’s easier to make one big decision than a hundred little ones. That’s the dream of being a hero. Life is harsh on the snow. Live or die. At home I didn’t have the strength to make all of the decisions that determined how I would live my life.”
We stepped into a great cavern full of dreamstone. Half a dozen frozen corpses lay on the ground, their eyes fixed on the dreamstone. Mama’s body rested with her back against the cave wall, next to a narrow tunnel opening. Her face was covered in flecks of ice and her guns were in their holsters.
I’d known this was coming, but it still felt like a blizzard had caught my heart in its grasp.
Mama’s dream form broke apart and the lights darted around the room. It had only been a dream, but it hurt to lose her again. Mama had to have come to this place for a reason. Had she been searching for the dreams of Light and Dark themself?
Kristin crouched by Mama’s side and said a prayer to Light and Dark. Then she used her lantern to melt the ice and plucked the guns from the holsters. She whistled in appreciation and handed them to Inga. “Ain’t these the finest guns you ever seen?”
Inga held up the guns, admiring their workmanship. One gun bore the image of the sun, the other was decorated with a black stone. Inga handed the guns back to Kristin and gently kissed Mama’s frozen cheek. “One of us will continue your work, Mama.”
Kristin turned to me. “It’s time to choose, big sister. Which of us is the most worthy to receive the guns?”
Either of my sisters would make an excellent warden, but why was it my decision? Was this the white noon from Mama’s dream? I’d always thought a hero was someone who made the right decisions. Not someone who avoided them. What if avoiding a decision was a decision itself? Or was this nothing but a way for cowards to justify their inaction?
“Time to choose, Elin,” Kristin said.
If I ruled against Kristin, she’d be angry and tell me I was a fool. It was harder to know what Inga would do. She didn’t wear her heart on her face.
“I think you should have a gun each.”
Kristin shook her head. “That won’t work, sis. Light and Dark. The guns won’t work unless they are a pair.”
“But what if you stay together?” I said. “Two wardens with two guns. Light and Dark.”
“You need to choose,” Inga said.
I crouched down in front of Mama and tried to work out what she had been doing here. Her dark eyes that had once seen everything looked at peace. She clutched thin pieces of dreamstone in her left fist. And that’s when I knew why she had come here. She’d been trying to use dreamstone to make her guns work by themselves. She’d wanted to give a gun each to Inga and Kristin. She hadn’t wanted to make a choice either.
I was the oldest, but Mama thought I was capable of looking after myself. Inga and Kristin were the ones she wanted to carry on her legacy. I was glad Mama had loved my sisters, but I would have traded my sisters’ happiness in a heartbeat to get Mama back.
Her right hand was curled around something. I pried open her fist, revealing a piece of dreamstone carved in the shape of a dog. It had the same expression on its face as the one on my belt buckle.
Mama might have taken me for granted, but I knew I had been in her thoughts at the end. I placed dreamstone coins on her eyes and wished her a swift journey to the next world. I stood up and stamped my feet. I wasn’t going to be caught in a dream. I wasn’t wasting my talents by living a quiet life. I helped others in my own small way and looked after my dogs.
I slipped the miniature dog into my pouch. Becoming a judge or a warden wouldn’t give me any special wisdom. Light and Dark bring the sun and the darkness, but it’s up to us to determine what is good and evil.
Inga and Kristin both stood still, their eyes closed. I slapped Inga with my glove, but she didn’t react. They were caught in their dreams. Kristin clutched Light in her hand and Inga held tight to Dark.
I shook my sisters, but they wouldn’t wake up. I could carry one of them out of the mine, but the other would be frozen to death before I returned. Which sister should I take?
Maybe there was a white noon. A decision you can’t escape no matter how hard you try.
Kristin was the youngest, but I’d always felt closer to Inga. No, I had to find a way to save both of them. I wasn’t giving up on my sisters.
The necklaces were supposed to protect us from getting ensnared in dreams, but they hadn’t protected Inga or Kristin. Why was I still awake? My dangerous lack of ambition? I was more focused on saying funeral rites than getting guns?
The guns! I prized Light from Kristin’s grasp. The gun felt perfectly balanced in my hand. I took Dark from Inga and held the guns in front of me.
My sisters’ lives were worth more than some stupid guns. I aimed the guns at each other and commanded them to fire.
Light and Dark exploded into each other. Sparks of light danced with shadows across the caves and the ground shook with their dance. The shock waves spilled against Kristin and Inga, and they opened their eyes. They stared at the ruined husks of the guns.
“What have you done?” Kristin asked.
“I saved your lives.”
Neither of my sisters were entirely happy with my explanation, but their complaints died when they saw the blast of Light and Dark had shaken loose chunks of dreamstone. We stuffed a couple of fist-sized stones into our backpacks and wished Mama a safe final journey.
The dogs took us back to Coldwood. My sisters started making preparations to sell the dogs, but I told them I was taking the dogs with me.
“They looked after us and we shouldn’t forget that.”
“The trolls won’t like you bringing dogs on the train,” Kristin said.
“Let me take care of the trolls,” I replied.
We said our goodbyes at the station. Inga and Kristin planned to go to the capital to petition the Place of Light and Dark that they both be awarded the rank of warden and given their own set of guns. I suspected that donating chunks of dreamstone might make their request seem more reasonable.
Kristin hugged me. “Take care of yourself, but make sure you do more than just get by.”
“Getting by has kept me out of trouble,” I told her.
Inga kissed me on the cheek. “Sometimes you need to burn the world.”
The troll guarding the station entrance complained about the dogs, but I silenced his complaints with a chunk of dreamstone in payment.
My sisters headed south and I took the train north. I bought a new sled and hitched my dogs to it and we raced to my cabin. The barking of my old dogs let me know I was home.
About the Author
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 100 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside.
Aidan joined PodCastle as an Associate Editor in 2016.
About the Narrator
Julie Hoverson is a woman of mystery. And Horror. And occasionally sci-fi. She writes, produces and acts in the audio drama series 19 Nocturne Boulevard, as well as appearing in many other shows. She also is working hard to promote all scripted audio dramas through the twitter feed @A_D_Infinitum, and hopes one day to take over the world.